22 Sep 2021 5:45 AM GMT
The Kerala High Court while disposing of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) assailing the reforms introduced by the new Lakshadweep Administration, reiterated that a writ court can only consider a policy matter if there was any arbitrariness, illegality or unfairness on the part of the authority while exercising the power conferred under law.Dismissing the PIL, a Division Bench of Chief Justice...
The Kerala High Court while disposing of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) assailing the reforms introduced by the new Lakshadweep Administration, reiterated that a writ court can only consider a policy matter if there was any arbitrariness, illegality or unfairness on the part of the authority while exercising the power conferred under law.
Dismissing the PIL, a Division Bench of Chief Justice S Manikumar and Justice Shaji P Chaly remarked:
"Taking into account the proposition of law laid down by the Apex Court and the facts and circumstances available in the case at hand, we have no hesitation to hold that the petitioner has not made out any case of arbitrariness or illegality in the policy decision taken by the Lakshadweep administration in the matter of the closure of the cattle farm, and the modification of the midday meal scheme provided to the children of the island."
It noted that the decision to close dairy farms was taken in view of financial considerations and the mid-day meal menu was though modified, did not compromise with the nutrition content required for children.
The petition was filed by one Ajmal Ahmed R., an Advocate by profession and a member of the Executive Committee of the Lakshadweep Bar Association. He sought to quash the order dated May 21, passed by the Lakshadweep Administration ordering the Director of the Department of Animal Husbandry to close all the dairy farms run by the Department and to dispose of the bulls, calves etc. immediately.
The PIL also sought to quash minutes of the UT Level Steering Cum Monitoring Committee and District Task Force on Midday meal scheme dated January 27, whereby the existing menu was modified by deleting meat and chicken and including fruits and dry fruits.
The petitioner was concerned that the measures implemented by the Administrator of the Lakshadweep would bring misery and suffering to the people of the Union Territory by destroying the culture and ecology of the island.
Advocates Peeyus A Kottam and Hrithwik D Namboothiri appearing for the petitioners alleged that the reforms were being implemented by the Administrator in blatant violation of the principles of natural justice and even without allowing the islanders to raise their objections.
Additionally, it was contended that these unilateral reforms were capricious and arbitrary and had interfered with the life, liberty and freedom of the islanders.
On the same note, the petitioner argued that these reforms were going to be implemented without publishing the draft regulation in the local language, deliberately to deprive the islanders the opportunity to understand such drafts, thereby depriving their right to raise their voice against such movement.
It was further averred that the Administration was 'silently implementing draconian measures' during the lockdown, fully knowing that during such time the public will not protest against such illegal actions.
In fact, when protests were raised in this regard, such demonstrators were arrested and thrown behind bars for allegedly violating the Covid-19 protocol, the petitioner submitted.
On such grounds, the petitioner argued that the Administrator was attempting to impose his hidden and mischievous personal agenda, which is in violation of Articles 15, 16, 19, 21 and 300A of the Constitution of India
The case of the petitioner also touched upon the aspect that the Animal Husbandry Department had started farms to educate the people on the islands in farming and other allied activities.
Therefore, the attempt of the Administrator to close down the farms was alleged to be against the interest of the residents of the Union Territory, particularly since the decision was taken without any discussion, thereby making such direction arbitrary and illegal.
Regarding the alteration of the midday meal menu, the petitioner argued that no reasons were assigned to delete chicken and meat from the scheme.
According to him, chicken and meat were included in the midday meal programme taking into account the food habits of the residents of Lakshadweep. It was also contended that the meat and chicken were included to attract more children to attend schools, apart from the nutrition in the meal served to them.
Central Government Counsel Hari Rao and Senior Central Government Counsel Manu S represented the respondents and vehemently denied all the allegations levelled by the petitioner.
They submitted that although meat and chicken were excluded, fish, which is commonly available in the island, was included on more days, apart from egg, fruits and dry fruits.
It was also submitted that the midday meal scheme was introduced at the national level, and relied upon the midday meal scheme introduced in Goa, West Bengal, and Puducherry.
The respondents submitted that the reforms were introduced after careful consideration of the National programme for serving mid-day meals and that there was no hidden agenda or malicious intention on the part of the Administrator in modifying the midday meal menu of the Union Territory as alleged.
So far as closing of dairy farms is concerned, it was submitted that dairy farms together cater to the needs of only 300-400 people; whereas, the total population of the 2 islands are more than 20000 and the administration had to suffer a loss of more than Rs.90 lakhs per financial year.
Observations of the Court:
The primary questions that arose for consideration in the matter were whether any manner of interference was warranted to modify the orders passed by the Director of Animal Husbandry.
Upon persuing the facts and figures projected by the Administration in its counter-affidavit, the Court found that the total expenditure during 2019-2020 was Rs.62,46,924/-, whereas the revenue generated from the farm was only Rs.11,35,330/- and the deficit was Rs.51,11,594/-.
Likewise, during the year 2020-2021, the total expenditure was Rs. 57,95,691/-. However, the total revenue generated was Rs. 14,19,301/- and thus, the deficit of Rs.43,76,390/-.
The situation was found to be similar on Minicoy Island. It was under such circumstances that the Administration decided to close down the farms.
Therefore, the Court found force in the contention advanced by the Administration that dairy farms together cater to the needs of only 300-400 people; whereas, the total population of the 2 islands are more than 20000 and the administration had to suffer a loss of more than Rs.90 lakhs per financial year.
"...we find force in the contention advanced by the learned counsel for the Administration that due to the geographical conditions of the islands non-availability of green fodder cannot be ruled out, which, in fact, will interfere with the smooth conduct of the animal husbandry activities and less production of milk."
The Court also noted that detailed and elaborate discussions were held in respect of the dairy farms and it was on the basis of a policy decision of the Administration that the Director was directed to close down the farms and to dispose of the animals in the auction held.
Hence, the Court found that the contention advanced by the petitioner that no reasons are assigned in the order of the Director of Animal Husbandry dated 21.05.2021 cannot be sustained under law.
The Bench observed that from the National Programme of Midday Meal in Schools for Lakshadweep for the financial year 2020- 2021, it was clear that the menu for the midday meal scheme contained rice, dhal, fish, green gram, meat, chicken, eggs etc., and are provided to the students from Monday to Friday.
However, a note mentioned that the above items are served according to the availability of items in the local market. It was also stated that additional food items provided are fruits, milk and any other items, if any from the available resources.
It was also specifically mentioned that egg, fish, chicken, and fruits were served as additional items in the midday meal according to the availability of the items in the local market.
The Court noted that all the District Panchayat members and others present in the meeting opined that the food habits of the children of Union Territory is different from other States and that the food habits in Lakshadweep may not cope up with the "Akshayapatra" norms.
Akshayapatra is a Non-Governmental Organisation supplying food in the midday meal scheme in other States.
Therefore, it was suggested that it would be better to continue the present system.
It was also clear from the minutes that Dr Haseena, a Physician, informed that non-vegetarian food like fish, chicken, egg etc. are essential for the growth of children and also informed that the children need a healthy balanced diet containing foods from each food group, i.e., vegetarian along with non-vegetarian, so that they can get a wide range of nutrients to help them stay healthy.
The physician had also advised to include dry fruits on the menu.
Therefore, the Court found that even despite various suggestions made during the meeting, it was decided to exclude meat and chicken from the midday meal scheme.
However, it was seen that as compared to the earlier menu, fish and egg were included on more days, apart from including fruits and dry fruits.
It was also decided in the meeting that a Food Monitoring Committee was to be set up at the island level and the Chairman, as well as the members, suggested that the existing island Level Committee may submit a monthly report of the food testing or any other issues related under the midday meal scheme to the Department of Education through the Principals of the schools concerned.
Hence, the Court noticed that importance had been given to balanced and nutritious meals and how to provide them economically, taking into account the safety, health and hygienic aspects.
The Administration had also produced the midday meal scheme of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Puducherry, Goa and West Bengal to show that some States and UTs offered only vegetarian food in their mid-day meal schemes with egg served occasionally.
Moreover, as per the Act, 2013, the midday meal scheme is liable to be provided only to children up to upper primary classes. However, the Administration has extended the midday meal scheme to the students up to Higher Secondary Classes by utilising the funds available.
The Court also observed that the modified midday meal scheme that unlike any other Union Territories and the States discussed above, fish, egg, fruits and dry fruits are provided to the children of the Union Territory of Lakshadweep on more days.
"We find force in the said contention, because in no other Union Territories and States, meat is used in the midday meal scheme, however a limited variety of non-vegetarian items like egg and fish alone are included. Therefore, it cannot be said that the students of the Union Territory of Lakshadweep alone are singled out in the matter of the midday meal scheme. Moreover, it is clear from the policy of the National Programme of Mid-day meal that what is relevant is the nutritional value of the food and not the kind of food supplied."
The petitioner had submitted that when the Administration interferes with the traditional food habits of having meat and chicken along with the midday meals of the islanders, the Court has to step in and set it aside.
The administration responded to this argument citing Balco Employees Union v. Union of India (UOI) and Ors [(2002) 2 SCC 333] where it was held that it is not for the courts to consider relative merits of different economic policies and consider whether a wiser or better one can be evolved.
In the sphere of economic policy or reform, the court is not the appropriate forum for evaluation.
"In the case of a policy decision on economic matters, the courts should be very circumspect in conducting any enquiry or investigation and must be most reluctant to impugn the judgment of the experts who may have arrived at a conclusion, unless the Court is satisfied that there is illegality in the decision itself. Judicial interference with the administration cannot be meticulous in our Montesquieu system of separation of powers."
The Court cannot usurp or abdicate, and the parameters of judicial review must be clearly defined and never exceeded.
It is neither within the domain of the Courts nor the scope of the judicial review to embark upon an enquiry as to whether a particular public policy is wise or whether better public policy can be evolved.
The Courts have consistently refrained from interfering with economic decisions as it has been recognised that economic expediencies lack adjudicative disposition.
The policies of the Government ought not to remain static. With the change in economic climate, the wisdom and the manner for the Government to run commercial ventures may require reconsideration. What may have been in the public interest at a point of time may no longer be so.
Therefore, a writ court considering such policy aspects need only be considered whether there was any arbitrariness, illegality or unfairness on the part of the authority while exercising the power conferred under law.
The respondents argued that the petitioner could not establish any case of arbitrariness and illegality to interfere with the policy decision of the administration in the matter of the midday meal scheme.
The Court found force in the said contention because, in no other Union Territories or States, meat is used in the midday meal scheme, however a limited variety of non-vegetarian items like egg and fish alone are included.
Therefore, it cannot be said that the students of the Union Territory of Lakshadweep alone are singled out in the matter of the midday meal scheme.
Accordingly, the writ petition was dismissed with a clarification that the Administration is always at liberty to make the necessary modification of the midday meal scheme, or any scheme with respect to promoting animal husbandry extending appropriate support to the inhabitants of the islands.
Case Title: Ajmal Ahmed R v. Union of India & Ors
Click Here To Read The Order